1902 Encyclopedia > India > Indian History: 1. Non-Aryan or Aboriginal Races

(Part 16)


1. Non-Aryan or Aboriginal Races

Our earliest glimpses of India disclose two races struggling for the soil. The once was a fair-skinned people, who had lately entered by the north-western passes—a people of Aryan (literally "noble") lineage, speaking a stately language, worshipping friendly and powerful gods. The other was a race of a lower type, who had long dwelt in the land, and whom the lordly new-comers drove back before them into the mountains, or reduced to servitude on the plains. The comparatively pure descendants of these two races in India are now nearly equal in number, there being about 18 millions of each; their mixed progeny, sprung chiefly from the ruder stock, make up the mass of the present Indian population.

The lower tribes were an obscure people, who, in the absence of a race-name of their own, are called the non-Aryans or aborigines. They have left no written records; indeed, the use of letters, or of the simplest hieroglyphics, was to them unknown. The sole works of their hands which have come down to us are the rude stone circles and upright slabs or mounds beneath which, like the primitive peoples of Europe, they buried their dead. From these we only discover that, at same far distant but unfixed period, they knew how to make round pots of hard, thin earthenware, that they fought with iron weapons, and that they wore ornaments of copper and gold. The coins of imperial Rome have been found in their later graves. Earlier remains, lying in the upper soils of large areas, prove that these ancient tomb-builders formed only one link in a chain of primaeval races. Long before their advent, India was peopled, as far as the depths of the Central Provinces, by tribes unacquainted with the metals, who hunted and warred with polished flint axes and other deftly-wrought implements of stone similar to those dug up in northern Europe. And even these were the successors of yeí ruder beings, who have left their agate knives and rough flint weapons in the Narbadá valley. In front of this far-stretching background of the Bronze and Stone Ages, we see the so-called aborigines being beaten down by the newly arrived Aryan race.

The struggle is commemorated by the two names which the victors gave to the early tribes, namely, the Dasyus, or "enemies," and the Dásas, or "slaves." The last remains to this day the family name of multitudes of the lower class in Bengal. The new-comers from the north prided themselves on their fair complexion, and their Sanskrit word for "colour" (varna) came to mean "race" or "caste." Their earliest poets, at least three thousand and perhaps four thousand years ago, praised in the Rig-Veda their gods, who, "slaying the Dasyus, protected the Aryan colour," who "subjected the black-skin to the Aryan man." Moreover, the Aryan, with his finely-formed features, loathed the squat Mongolian faces of the aborigines. One Vedic singer speaks of them as "noseless" of flat-nosed, while another praises his own "beautiful-nosed" gods. The same unsightly feature was commented on with regard to a non-Aryan Asiatic tribe, by the companions of Alexander the Great on his Indian expedition, at least a thousand years later. The Vedic hymns abound in scornful epithets for the primitive tribes, as "disturbers of sacrifices," "gross feeders on flesh," "raw-eaters," "lawless," "not-sacrificing," "without god," and "without rites." As time went on, and these rude tribes were driven back into the forest, they were painted ins till more hideous shapes, till they became the "monsters" and "demons" of the Aryan poet and priest. Their race-name Dasyu, "enemy," thus grew to signify a goblin or devil, as the old Teutonic word for enemy has become the English "fiend."

Nevertheless, all of them could not have been savages. We hear of wealthy Dasyus, and even the Vedic hymns speak much of their "seven castles" and "ninety-forts." In later Sanskrit literature the Aryans make alliance with aboriginal princes; and when history at length dawns on the scene, we find some of the most powerful kingdoms of India ruled by dynasties of non-Aryan descent. Nor were they devoid of religious rites, nor of cravings after a future life. "They adorn," says a very ancient Sanskrit treatise, 2 "the bodies of their dead with gifts, with raiment, with ornaments, imagining that thereby they shall attain the world to come." These ornaments are the bits of bronze, copper, and gold, which we now dig up from beneath their rude stone monuments. In the great Sanskrit epic which narrates the advance of the Aryans into southern India, a non-Aryan chief describes his race as "of fearful swiftness, unyielding in battle, in colour like a dark blue cloud."

Thrust back by the Aryans from the plains, these primitive peoples have lain hidden away in the recesses of the mountains, like the remains of extinct animals which zoologists find in hill-caves. India thus forms a great museum of races, in which we can study man from his lowest to his highest stages of culture.

Among the rudest fragments of mankind are the isolated Andaman islanders in the Bay of Bengal. The old Arab and European voyagers described them as dog-faced man-eaters. The English officers sent to the islands in 1855 to establish a settlement found themselves surrounded by quite naked cannibals or a ferocious type, who daubed themselves when festive with red earth, and mourned in a suit of olive-coloured mud. They used a noise like weeping to express friendship or joy, bore only names of common gender, which they received before birth; and their sole conception of a god was an evil spirit who spread disease. For five years they repulsed every effort at intercourse by showers of arrows; but the officers slowly brought them to a better frame of mind by building sheds near the settlement, where these poor brings might find shelter from the tropical rains, and receive medicines and food.

The Anamalai hills, in southern Madras, form the refuge of a whole series of broken tribes. Five hamlets of long-haired wild-looking Puliars live on jungle products, mice, or any small animals they can catch, and worship demons. Another clan, the Mundavars, shrink from contact with the outside world, and possess no fixed dwellings, but wander over the innermost hills with their cattle, sheltering themselves under little lead-sheds, and seldom remaining in one spot more than a year. The think-lipped small-bodied Kaders, "Lords of the Hills," are a remnant of a higher race. They file the front teeth of the upper jaw as a marriage ceremony, live by the chase, and wield some influence over the ruder forest-folk. These hills, now very thinly peopled, abound in the great stone monuments (kistvaens and dolmens) which the primitive tribes used fro their dead. The Nairs of south-western India still practice polyandry, according to which a man’s property descends not to his own but to his sister’s children. That system also appears among the Himálayans tribes at the opposite extremity of India.

In the Central Provinces the aboriginal races form a large proportion of the population. In certain districts, as in the feudatory state of Bastár, they amount to three-fifths of the inhabitants. The most important race, the Gonds, have made some advances in civilization; but the wilder tribes still cling to the forest, and live by the chase, and some of them are reported to have used, within a few years back, flint points for their arrows. The Máris wield bows of great strength, which they hold with their feet while they draw the string with both hands. A still wilder tribe, the Máris, fly from their grass-built huts on the approach of a stranger. Once a year a messenger comes to them from the local rájá to take their tribute of jungle products. He does not enter their hamlets, but beats a drum outside, and then hides himself. The slay Márís creep forth, place what they have to give in an appointed spot, and run back again into their retreats.

Further to the north-east, in the tributary states of Orissa, there is a poor tribe, 10,000 in number, of Juangs or Patuas, literally the "leaf-wearers", whose women formerly wore no clothes. Their only vestige of covering was a few strings of beads round the waist with a bunch of leaves tied before and behind. Those under the British influence were clothes in 1871 by order of Government, and their native chief was persuaded to do the same work for the others. This lead-wearing tribe had no knowledge of the metals till quite lately, when foreigners came among them, and no word exists in their native language for iron or any other metal. But their country abounds with flint weapons, so that the Juangs form a remnant to our own day of the Stone Age. "Their huts," writes the officer who knows them best, "are among the smallest that human beings ever deliberately constructed as dwellings. They measure about 6 feet by 8. The head of the family and all the females huddle together in this one shell, not much larger than a dog-kennel." The boys and the young men of the village live in one large building apart by themselves; and this custom of having a common abode for the whole made youth of the hamlet is found among many of the aboriginal tribes in distant parts of India. The Kandhs of Orissa, who kept up their old tribal ritual of human sacrifice until it was put down by the British in 1835-45, and the Santáls in the west of Lower Bengal, who rose in 1855, are examples of powerful and highly developed non-Aryan tribes.

Proceeding to the northern boundary of India, we find the slopes and spurs of the Himálayans peopled by great variety of rude tribes. As a rule they are fierce, black, undersized, and ill-fed. They formerly eked out a wretched subsistence by plundering the more civilized hamlets of the Assam valley,—a means of livelihood which they are but slowly giving up under British rule. Some of the wildest of them, such as the independent Abars, are now employed as a sort of irregular police, to keep the peace of the border, in return for a yearly gift of cloth, hoes, and grain. Their very names beat witness to their former wild life. One tribe, the Akas of Assam, is divided into two clans, known respectively as "The eaters of a thousand hearths," and "The thieves who lurk in the cottonfield."

Whence came these primitive peoples, whom the Aryan invaders found in the land more three thousand years ago, and who are still scattered over India the fragments of a prehistoric world? Written records they do not possess. Their oral traditions tell us little, but such hints as they yield feebly point to the north. They seem to preserve dim memories of a time when the tribes dwelt under the shadow of mightier hill ranges than any to be found on the south of the river plains of Bengal. "The Great Mountain" is the race-god of the Santáls, and an object of worship among other tribes. The Gonds, in the heart of Central India, have a legend that they were created at the foot of Dewálagiri Peak in the Himálayas. Till lately they buried their dead with the feet turned northwards, so as to be ready to start again for their ancient home in the north.

The language of the non-Aryan races, that record of a nation’s past more enduring than rock inscriptions or tables, of brass, is being slowly made to tell the secret of their origin. It already indicates that the early peoples of India belonged to three great stocks, known as the Tibeto-Burman, the Kolarian, and the Dravidian. The Tibero-Burman tribes cling to the skirts of the Himálayans and their north-eastern offshoots. They crossed over into India by the north-eastern passes, and in some prehistoric time had dwelt in Central Asia, side by side with the forefathers of the Mongolians and the Chinese. Several of the hill languages in Eastern Bengal preserve Chinese terms, others contain Mongolian. Thus the Nágás in Assam still use words for three and water which might almost be understood in the streets of Canton.

The following are the twenty principal dialects of the Tibeto-Burman group:—(1) Cáchárí or Bodo, (2) Garo, (3) Tripura or Mrung, (4) Tibetan or Bhutiam (5) Gurung, (6) Murmi, (7) Newar, (8) Lepcha, (9) Miri, (10) Aka, (11) Mishmi dialects, (12) Dhimal, (13) Kanáwari dialects, (14) Míkír, (15) Singpho, (16) Nága dialects, (17) Kuki dialects, (18) Burmese, 919) Khyeng, and (20) Manipuri.

"It is impossible," writes Mr Brandreth, "to give even an approximate number of the speakers included in this group, as many of the languages are either across the frontier or only project a short distance into our own territory. The languages included in this group have not, with perhaps one or two exceptions, both a cerebral and dental row of consonants, like the South-Indian languages; some of them have aspirated forms of the surds, but not of the sonants; others have aspirated forms of both. The languages of this group even those which most diverge from each other, have several words in common, and especially numerals and pronouns, and also some resemblances of grammar. In comparing the resembling words, the differences between them consist often less in any modification of the root-syllable than in the various additions to the root. Thus in Burmese we have ná ‘ear; ‘Tibetan, rna-ba; Magar, na-kep; newar, nai-pong; Dhimal, ná-háthong; Kiranti dialects, ná-pro, ná-rek, ná-phák; Nága languages, te-na-ro, te-na-rang; Manipuri, na-kong; Kupui, ka-ná; Sak, aka-ná; Karen, na-khu; and so on. It can hardly be doubted that such additions as these to monosyllabic roots are principally determinative syllables for the purpose of distinguishing between what would otherwise have been monosyllabic words having the same sound. These determinative are genrally affixed in the languages of Nepál and in the Dhimal language; prefixed in the Lepcha language, and in the languages of Assam, of Manipur, and of the Chittagong and Arakan hills, Words are also distinguished by difference of tone. The tones are generally of two kinds, described as the abrupt or short, and the pausing or heavy; and it has been remarked that those languages which are most given to adding other syllables to the root make the least use of the tones, and vice versa; where the tones most prevail the least recourse is had to determinative syllables."

The Kolarians, the second of the three non-Aryan stocks, seem also to have entered Bengal by the north-eastern passes. They dwell chiefly in the north, and along the north-eastern edge of the three-sided table-land which covers the southern half of India. Some of the Dravidians, or third stock, appear, on the other hand, to have found their way into the Punjab by the north-western passes. They now inhabit the southern part of the three-sided table-land, as far down as cape Comorin, the southernmost part of India. It appears as if the two streams of the Kolarian tribes from the north-east and the Dravidians from the north-west had converged and crossed each other in Central India. The Dravidians proved the stronger, broke up the Kolarians, thrust aside their fragments to east and west, and then rushed forward in a mighty body to the south.

It thus happened that, while the Dravidians formed a vast mass in southern India, the Kolarians survived only as isolated tribes, scattered so far apart as soon to forget their common origin. One of the largest of the Kolarian races, the Santáls, dwells on the extreme eastern edge of the three-sided table-land of Central India where it slopes down into the Gangetic valley of Lower Bengal. The Kurkus, a broken Kolarian tribe, inhabit a patch of country about 400 miles to the west, and have for perhaps thousands of year been cut off from the Santáls by mountains and pathless forests, and by intervening races of the Dravidian and Aryan stocks. The Kurkus and Santáls have no tradition of a common origin; yet at this day the Kurkus speak a language which is little else than a dialect of Santáli. The Savers, once a great Kolarian tribe, mentioned by Pliny and Ptolemy, are now a poor wandering race of woodcutters of northern Madras and Orissa. Yet fragments of them have lately been found deep in Central India, and as far west as Rájputána on the other side.

The nine principal language of the Kolarian group are—(1) Santáli, (2) Mundári, (3)_ Ho, (4) Bhumij, (5) Korwa, (6) Kharria, (7) Juang, (8) Kurku, and perhaps (9) Savar. Some of them are separated only by dialectical differences.

"The Kolarian group of languages," writes Mr Brandreth, "has both the cerebral and dental row of letters, and also aspirated forms, which last, according to Caldwell, did not belong to early Dravidian. There is also a set of four sounds, which are perhaps peculiar to Santáli, called by Skrefsrud semi-consonants, and which, when followed by a vowel, are changed respectively into g, j, d, and b. Gender of nouns is animate and inanimate, and is distinguished by difference of pronouns, by difference of suffix of a qualifying noun in the genitive relation, and by the gender being denoted by the verb. As instances of the genitive suffix, we have in Santáli inren hopon, ‘my son,’ but in-ak orak, ‘my house,’ There is no distinction of sex in the pronouns, but of the animate and inanimate gender. The dialects generally agree in using a short form of the third personal pronoun suffixed to denote the number, dual and plural, of the noun, and short forms of all the personal pronouns are added to the verb in certain positions to express both number and person, both as regards the subject and object, if of the animate gender,—the inanimate gender of languages, apparently, has such a logical classification of its nouns as that shown by the genders of both the South-Indian groups. The genitive in the Kolarian group of the full personal pronouns is used for the possessive pronoun, which again takes all the post-positions, the genitive relation being thus indicated by the genitive suffix twice repeated. The Kolarian languages generally express grammatical relations by suffixes, and add the post-positions directly to the root without the intervention of an oblique form or genitive or other suffix. They agree with the Dravidian in having inclusive and exclusive forms for the plural of the first personal pronoun, in using a relative participle instead of a relative pronoun, in the position of the governing word, and in the possession of a true causal form of the verb. They have a dual, which the Dravidians have not, but they have no negative voice. Counting is by twenties instead of by tens, as in the Dravidian. The Santáli verb, according to Skrefsrud, has twenty-three tenses, and for every tense two forms of the participle and a gerund."

The compact Dravidians in the south, although in after days subdued by the higher civilization of the Aryan race which pressed in among them, were never thus broken into fragments. Their pure descendants consists, indeed, of small and scattered tribes; but they have given their languages to 46 millions of people in southern India, That some of the islands in the distant Pacific Ocean were peopled either from the Dravidian settlements in India, or from an earlier common source, remains a conjectural induction of philologers, rather than an established ethnological fact.1 The aboriginal tribes in southern and western Australia use almost the same words for I, thou, he, we, you, &c., as the fishermen on the Madras coasts, and resemble in many other ways the Madras hill tribes, as in the use of their national weapon the boomerang.

Bishop Caldwell recognizes twelve distinct Dravidian languages:—(1) Tamil, (2) Malayálim, (3) Telugu, (4) Kanarese, (5) Tulu, (6) Kudugu, (7) Toda, (8) Kota, (9) Gond, (10) Khond, (11) Uráon, (12) Rájmahál.

"In the Dravidian group," writes Mr Brandreth, "there is a rational and an irrational gender of the nouns, which is distinguished in the plural of the nouns, and sometimes in the singular also, by affixes which appear to be fragmentary pronouns, by corresponding pronouns, and by the agreement of the verb with the noun, the gender of the verb being expressed by the pronominal suffixes. To give an instance of verbal gender, we jave in Tamil, from the root sey, ‘to do,’ seyd-án, ‘he (rational) did;’—seyd-ál, ‘she (rational) did; seyd-adu, ‘it (irrational) did;’ seyd-ár, ‘they (the rationals) did; seyd-a, ‘they (irrationals) did;’—the full pronouns being avan, ‘he;’ aval, ‘she;’ adu, ‘it;’ avar, ‘they;’ avei, ‘they.’ This distinction of gender, though it exists in most of the Dravidian languages, is not always carried out to the extent that it is in Tamil. In Telugu, Gond, and Khond it is preserved in the plural, but in the singular the feminine rational is merged in the irrational gender. In Gond the gender is further marked by the noun in the genitive relation taking a different suffix, according to the number and gender of the noun on which it depends. In Uráon the feminine rational is entirely merged in the irrational gender, with the exception of the pronoun, which preserves the distinction between rationals and irrationals in the plural; as as, ‘he,’ referring to a god or a man; ád, ‘she,’ or ‘it,’ referring to a woman or an irrational object; but ár, ‘they,’ applies to both men and women; abrá, ‘they,’ to irrationals only. The rational gender, besides human beings, included the celestial and infernal deities; and it is further subdivided in some of the languages, but in the singular only, into masculine and feminine. An instance of this subdivision in the Tamil verb was given above.

"The grammatical relations in the Dravidian are generally expressed by suffixes. Many nouns have an oblique form, which is a remarkable characteristic of the Dravidian group; still, with the majority of nouns, the post-positions are added directly to the nominative form. Other features of this group are—the frequent use of formatives to specialize the meaning of the root; the absence of relative pronouns, and the use instead of a relative participle, which is usually formed from the ordinary participle by the same suffix as that which Dr Caldwell considers as the oldest sign of the genitive relation; the adjective succeeding the substantive; of two substantives, the determining preceding the determined; and the verb being the last member of the sentence. There is no true dual in the Dravidian languages. In the Dravidian languages there are two forms of the plural of the pronoun of the first person, one including, the other excluding, the person address. As regards the verbs, there is a negative voice, but no passive voice, and there is a causal form."

We discern, therefore, long before the dawn of history, masses of men moving uneasily over India, and violently pushing in among still earlier tribes. they crossed the snows of the Himálayans and plunged into the tropical forests in search of new homes. Of these ancient races fragments now exist in almost exactly the same stage of human progress as they were when described by Vedic poets over three hundred years ago. Some are dying out, such as the Andaman islanders, among whom only one family in 1869 had so many as three children. Others are increasing, like the Santáls, who have doubled themselves under British rule. Taken as a whole, and including certain half-Hinduized branches, they number 17,716,825, or say 18 millions, equal to three-quarters of the population of England and Wales. But while the bolder or more

Isolated of the aboriginal races have thus kept themselves apart, by far the greater portion submitted in ancient times to the Aryan invaders, and now make up the mass of the Hindus.

In Bengal and Assam the aborigines are divided into nearly sixty distinct races. In the North-Western Provinces sixteen tribes of aborigines are enumerated in the census of 1872. In the Central Provinces they numbered 1 _ millions,—the ancient race of Gonds, who ruled the central table-land before the rise of the Marhattás, alone amounting to 1 _ millions. In British Burmah the Karens, whose traditions have a singularly Jewish tinge, number 330,000. In Oudh the nationality of the aboriginal tribed has been stamped out beneath successive waves of Rájput and Mahometan invaders. In centres of the ancient Hindu civilization, the aboriginal races have become the low-castes and out-castes on which the social fabric of India rests. A few of them, however, still preserve their ethical identity as wandering tribes or jugglers, baskets-weavers, and fortune-tellers. Thus the Náts, Bediyas, and other gipsy clans are recognized to this day as distinct from the surrounding Hindu population.

The aboriginal races on the plains have supplied the hereditary criminal classes alike under the Hindus, the Mahometans and the British. Formerly organized robber communities, they have, under the stricter police administration of our days, sunk into petty pilferers. But their existence is still recognized by the Criminal Tribes Act, passed in 1871, and occasionally enforced within certain localities of northern India.

The non-Aryan hills races, who figured form Vedic times downwards as marauders and invaders, have ceased to be a disturbing element. Many of them appear as predatory clans in Mahometan and early British India. They sailed forth from their mountains at the end of the autumn harvest, pillaged and burned the lowland villages, and retired to their fastnesses laden with the booty of the plains. The measures by which many of these wild races have been reclaimed mark some of the most honourable episodes of Anglo-Indian rule. Cleveland’s Hill-Rangers in the last century, and the Bhíls and Mhairs in more recent times, are well-known examples of marauding races being turned into peaceful cultivators and loyal soldiers. An equally salutary transformation has taken place in many a remote forest and hill tract of India. The firm order of British rule has rendered their old plundering life no longer possible, and at the same time has opened up to them new outlets for their energies. Their character differs in many respects from that of the tamer population of the plains. Their truthfulness, sturdy loyalty, and a certain joyous bravery, almost amounting to playfulness, appeal in a special manner to the English mind. There is scarcely a single administrator who has ruled over them for any length of time without finding his heart drawn to them, and leaving on record his belief in their capabilities for good.


776-2 Chandogya Upanished, quoted in Muir’s Sanskrit Texts.

776-3 Rámáyana.

778-1 See the authorities in Bishop Caldwell’s Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian Language, pp. 78-80, &c. (ed. 1857).

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